Private Eye Attacks Facebook Group for People Suspended from Labour

Private Eye has published much excellent material, and over the past few days I’ve blogged about some of the material revealed in this fortnight’s issue. But the magazine does have a very pronounced anti-Corbyn bias, and does seem to have swallowed, and regurgitated all the bilge smearing Corbyn and his supporters in the other parts of the lamestream media. It does seem to take as fact that the smears that Momentum is full of abusive misogynists and anti-Semites, and that the Labour leader and his supporters are ‘hard Left’ and Trotskyites. They aren’t. Corbyn and Momentum really are just traditional Labour, standing for the old Social Democratic policy of a mixed economy, and strong and healthy NHS and welfare state. All of which is anathema to the Thatcherite right – the Blairites – who have tried to position themselves as moderates when in fact the truth is, they’re the extremists. They’re extreme right. And outside the Labour party this is also unwelcome to the Tories and the mainstream media and its bosses pushing for more privatisation and further policies to destroy the welfare state and push the working class further into poverty. Because they see it as good for business having a cowed workforce on poverty wages.

In this fortnight’s Eye, for 15th-28th June 2018 on page 10, the pseudonymous ‘Ratbiter’ has published an article attacking a Facebook group for those suspended from the Labour party, and the attempts of its members to make contact with officials close to Corbyn to obtain justice or redress. It accepts absolutely uncritically the charges against them. And the end of the article once again repeats the claim that those suspended for anti-Semitism are automatically guilty, with an example of an anti-Semitic post from one of those in the group.

But many of those suspended from the Labour party for anti-Semitism and other offences are anything but, as shown in the cases of people like Mike, Tony Greenstein, Jackie Walker and very many others. As I’ve blogged about ad nauseam, ad infinitum. The article therefore needs to be carefully critiqued. It runs

Suspended Animation
Facebook has a secret and carefully vetted political group called Labour Party Compliance: Suspensions, Expulsions, Rejections Co-op. As the ungainly title suggests, it is a online hangout where Corbyn supporters facing disciplinary action for abuse, anti-Semitism and other loveable quirks can nurse their grievances in private. Or so they think.

Screenshots of the site obtained by the Eye show that the outcasts are not so far out in the cold they don’t have access to the highest levels of Corbyn’s Labour.

Take 17-year-old Zac Arnold, who has been suspended from the Forest of Dean Labour Party. He revealed he had “been given the email of someone called Thomas Gardiner by James Schneider at JC’s office, who said he would be a useful contact over my suspension”. He asked his fellow pariahs “what your thoughts are and if you know him”.

They certainly knew Schneider. “I have chatted with James,” said Caroline Tipler, the founder of the “Jeremy Corbyn Leads Us to Victory” Facebook group. “I def think it would be useful to make contact”. The best way to get back into the party would be to start by “making a tentative enquiry and gauge from the response whether to progress it from there”.

The “someone called Thomas Gardiner” to whom young Zac referred is a Labour councillor from Camden. When Corbyn assumed total control of the Labour machine in March by installing Jennie Formby, Len McCluskey’s former mistress, as Labour’s general secretary, Formby’s first act was to call in Gardiner.She sent John Stoliday, the head of Labour’s compliance unit, on gardening leave and put Gardiner in charge of overseeing complaints against members. So he is certainly a “useful” man to know for as any Corbyn supporter facing troublesome allegations – as indeed is Schneider, who works in the leader’s office alongside fellow Old Wykehamist Seumas Milne as Corbyn’s director of strategic communications.

Suspended members appear to think that, so long as they discuss their prejudices in private, they will be fine. Their Facebook group is splattered with posts painting Labour activists as victims of a Jewish conspiracy. “They will try to silence you,” reads one. “They will try to discredit you. Because you are not allowed to criticise Jewish politics.” But their own group suggests
that you are, as long as you aren’t caught and have friends in high places.

So what’s going on here? Well, first of all, the fact that Ratbiter claims to have had screenshots passed to him of the Facebook page shows that it’s not based on his research. It’s from an outside organisation. From the way this is about smearing Corbyn supporters as anti-Semites, it looks like it’s the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism or the Jewish Labour Movement up to their vile tricks again. The CAA’s modus operandi is simply to go back over people’s internet conversations in search of something vaguely anti-Semitic they can use, and then grossly distort it so that they can smear them. They did it to Mike, taking his comments out of context and grossly misreporting what he actually said. They did it to Jackie Walker and her conversation with two others on Facebook about the Jewish participation in the slave trade. Again, a serious issue, which reputable historians are discussing. Walker never said that Jews were responsible for the slave trade, or that they were exclusively in charge of it. She said that the ultimate responsibility lay with the Christian monarchs and states which employed them. There are, however, real anti-Semites, who claim that the Jews were responsible for the slave trade, and so the CAA smeared her, a practicing Jew with a Jewish partner, as an anti-Semite. Just like they’ve smeared Ken Livingstone, because he dared to talk about an embarrassing truth: that the Nazis did reach an agreement with the Zionists to send Jews to Israel, before they decided on the Final Solution. And then there was that entirely artificial controversy a month or so ago, where they smeared Corbyn himself as an anti-Semite, because of a post he made admiring a piece of street art showing bankers around a table resting on the bodies of black men. Only two of the bankers were Jewish, but nevertheless, the CAA and the Board of Deputies of British Jews frothed that it was ‘anti-Semitic’, trying to link it to all the vile theories about the Jewish banking conspiracy.

Unable to unseat Corbyn at the leadership elections, the Blairites and the Israel lobby have been trying to oust him gradually by suspending and smearing his supporters. As happened to Mike. The CAA’s vile article smearing him was passed on to the Labour party, who suspended him just as he was about to fight a council election as the Labour candidate in his part of mid-Wales. As Mike has blogged, he has appealed against his suspension, but was tried once again by another kangaroo court, very much like the one that decided that the veteran anti-racist campaigner, Marc Wadsworth, was an anti-Semite. The Labour party’s compliance unit is so determined to refuse justice to expelled or suspended members on trumped up charges of anti-Semitism, that there is now an organisation set up to fight them on this issue: Labour Against the Witch Hunt, one of whose organisers is the redoubtable Tony Greenstein. I think another is Walker herself. As for Wadsworth, he has gone on a triumphant tour defending himself up and down the country. His campaign was launched in London with Alexei Sayle. Sayle’s parents are Romanian Jews, who were card-carrying Communists, and Sayle himself was one of the leaders of the new, politically correct Alternative Comedy in the 1980s. He was very anti-racist, anti-sexist and pro-gay rights, as were the others that emerged at the same time. So he is very definitely not anti-Semitic.

Clearly, the movement to discredit the smear campaign against decent people unfairly libelled as anti-Semites is gaining ground, otherwise Ratbiter wouldn’t bother writing the article, and attacking and revealing the officials close to Corbyn, who may be prepared to give assistance to them.

Now let’s deal with their quotation that ‘you are not allowed to criticise Jewish politics’. Is this anti-Semitic? Or is simply a clumsy way of expressing a truth: that any criticism of Israel, or support for the Palestinians, will result in you being smeared and suspended. I strongly believe it’s the latter. And the issue of Israel has been deliberately confused with Jews by Israel and its satellite, Zionist organisations themselves. Netanyahu a few years ago declared that all Jews, everywhere, were citizens of Israel. Of course, it’s a risible statement. Many Jews don’t want to be citizens of Israel, a land with which they have no connection, and certainly not at the expense of the country’s real, indigenous inhabitants. Netanyahu and the other maniacs in his coalition don’t want all Jews to be citizens of their country either. Liberal or genuinely left-wing Jews, or Jews, who simply ask too many questions about the Palestinians and dare to think for themselves, rather than swallow Likudnik propaganda, aren’t let in. or if they’re there already, they get thrown out. As have dissident Israelis, like one historian now at Exeter University, Ilon Pappe, who was driven out of his homeland because he dared to describe and protest his nation’s long history of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians.

The organisations behind the smear campaign are Jewish organisations, or claim to be pro-Jewish, like the CAA and the Jewish Labour Movement, which was formerly Paole Zion, ‘Workers of Zion’. Now these organisations clearly don’t represent all Jews. They only represent those, who are fanatically and intolerantly pro-Israel. They also have gentile members, so it’s highly questionable just how ‘Jewish’ these Jewish organisations are. Those smeared by them include self-respecting and Torah-observant Jews, and they have subjected them to the kind of abuse, which would automatically be considered anti-Semitic if it came from a non-Jew. Indeed, many of the Jews smeared by them feel that there is a particular hatred of Jewish critics of Israel. Just like the founders of Zionism were absolutely dismissive of diaspora Jews.

Given this, it should be no surprise if a non-Jew, who has been smeared, becomes confused and says that you can’t criticise ‘Jewish politics’, meaning Israel. Because these Jewish organisations, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, insist that you can’t. And deliberately so, in order to make it easier to claim that all critics of Israel are anti-Semites.

This is a nasty, mischievous and deceitful article. It is designed to further isolate Corbyn by smearing his supporters and attacking the official close to him, who may be able help them. And it repeats the lie that all of those smeared are anti-Semites. It’s publication is a disgrace to Private Eye.

Ursula Le Guin Referenced in Radio 3 Programme about Forests

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/06/2018 - 5:17pm in

Next week, Saturday 16th June 2018 to Friday 22nd June, Radio 3 is broadcasting a series of programmes about forests, in folklore, history, anthropology, witchcraft, music and art. And next Tuesday’s edition of Free Thinking, 19th June 2018 at 10.00 pm discusses forests and the natural world in the work of the Fantasy and SF author Ursula K Le Guin. It takes as its title that of one of her SF novels, The Word for World Is Forest. The blurb for it on page 126 of the Radio Times reads

Humanity’s impact on the natural world is a theme running through the work of American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. Matthew Sweet discusses Le Guin on forests with British academic and Green Party politician Rupert Read.

On Eating Illusions & True Fools (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, II)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/06/2018 - 9:03pm in



When you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before.--From, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, chapter 11.

Last week (recall), I noted that in Ursule Le Guin's purportedly happy cite, Omelas, there is -- like in Plato's True City -- a religion without priests; earlier in the year (recall), I noted the absence of religion altogether in Book 1 of her Earthsea. As Matt Lister noted in his comments religion is central in Book 2 of Earthsea, "The Tombs  of Atuan." The Tombs  is both an unsubtle polemic against priest/priestess-craft and a subtle treatment of the reality of an invisible world full of dangerous and only partially controllable powers. Le Guin echoes the great Enlightenment thinkers in polemically showing how priest-craft and indoctrination can lead to endless cruelty against the politically weak, especially when the priests/priestesses themselves serve and deploy worldly even imperial power (and fail to believe in their own gods). But she  also warns against the seductions of relying exclusively on one's knowledge of nature.

In The Tombs, Le Guin daringly shows the transformation of a true believing Priestess, Arha, who ends up recoiling from her own cruelty when she spies on her most potent enemy, who is in her power, and interprets a gesture by him as him understanding his own foolishness. (The nature of true foolishness is an important sub-them in this novel and many other Le Guin stories [recall The Dispossessed]). We learn in the novel that her  enemy -- a man named Ged, who is capable of controlling invisible powers because he has access to the true names, that is generative definitions, of things  -- had, in fact, been a true fool. He had trusted his own powers to win a great prize. (I won't share the relevant details of the story.) He thought of his power and independence as freedom, but this a false freedom.

Through Arha's actions Ged, who represents the natural hubris of all experts, learns that "alone, no one wins freedom." At the end of the novel, Arha, in turn, discovers that even as a collaborative project, "freedom is a heavy load, a great strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one." So we may sum up the moral of the story -- and like all children's stories it's didactic --  that true freedom is a joint and difficult, even risky project which presupposes uncertain choices.  

True freedom, thus, has two contrasts: one is our submission to tradition, priestly power, and worldly greatness in which we fail to think for ourselves; the other, more interesting contrast in the story is, a false understanding of freedom in which we see ourselves as isolated individuals, using our knowledge to control our environment to our particular ends. These ends may be noble or base, but because they fail to incorporate the chosen perspectives of others, they are fundamentally fragile. (This would not be so on an isolated island, of course. But that's to turn freedom into self-imprisonment.) Even the greatest expert requires the collaboration and assistance of others to survive.

In Earthsea, Le Guin insists that our freedom is grounded in our choice to trust others (this is symbolized by the exchange of true names). That's inherently dangerous because it makes us vulnerable to betrayal and other hurts. If one chooses freedom, there is no insurance against some such vulnerability because even if the incentives are properly aligned, all institutions rely on the good will and good faith of others.  Because vulnerability is so scary, it is no surprise that people willingly choose not to make further choices and knowingly live on illusions that can never be gratified. 

Sita Sings the Blues Paintings

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/06/2018 - 2:58am in


I have finally, FINALLY catalogued the paintings I did for Sita Sings the Blues, and they’re all for sale at

Each one is signed, dated, and matted under glass in a 15”x12”x1-3/8” (except “Forest Hut” which is 13″ x 13″) unfinished wood frame.


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On Productivity in Philosophy; a mitigated defense

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/06/2018 - 9:17pm in



A few minutes into the conversation she asks the inevitable question.  “So, what are you working on?”  You say, “nothing.”  Or to make it perfectly clear, you say, “I am working on nothing.”  You are met with a suppressed shock (without the awe) that barely obscures your companion’s dark thoughts: you are living “dead wood,” worse, someone who has the gall to admit it. ...

No doubt this motivational desert was in part created by personal and familial challenges, as well as the extraordinarily disturbing current political climate.  But I’ve become convinced that my deepening disappointment with professional philosophy is what broke the camel’s back.  The solution might have been to sever all ties with professional philosophy—people do—but I’ve been part of this discipline for too long and know too many people.  It remains part of my identity.  It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t stop all writing.  There were blog posts (some relating to the philosophy profession), as well as miscellaneous unpublished writings.  But no traditional scholarship in philosophy...

Academic disciplines in our time have been subjected to a productivity principle: more is better, and a lot more is even better than better, giving rise to a kind of productivity syndrome, in which “more is better” becomes one’s modus operandi.  Alternatives to this MO come to seem unnatural, and quantitative measures take center stage.  For example, while we may rail about the importance of quality, the reality is that for tenure and promotion decisions, as well as a host of other professional perks, quantity rules the day.  Honestly, how often have you heard of someone not receiving tenure because his or her colleagues said that the quality of the work was unacceptable?  Of course this happens, but I am asking you to consider how often.  Having served on many internal and external reviews, my take-away is that quantity, and prestigious venues, are typically what win the day.  Yet, there is no guarantee that a book or article published by a prestigious press is of high quality.  We all know that weak or mediocre books slip through, for various reasons.  Quantity is so much easier....

Academic culture has become monomaniacally infatuated with productivity as a marker of accomplishment, of a successful academic life, of a successful life, and quantitative measures have become increasingly important in determining what counts as success, as we see, of course, in other sub-cultures of endeavor.  It’s increasingly difficult for people in America to consider non-productivity markers as acceptable indicators of a successful life, and academics are not immune to this productivity syndrome.  Quite the contrary.   Although they can be found resisting (mildly) the measurements of productivity foisted on them by university administrators, they also enthusiastically measure themselves.  It’s hard not to impress oneself by the number of one’s publications. ...

Philosophy was supposed to be different from other disciplines, or so I thought some 45 years ago when I was hooked.  Philosophy has been deeply committed to the honing of critical skills for millennia, as well as to enhancing our capacity for thoughtful and sustained reflection on matters public and private.  Philosophers were supposed to be the fearlessly critical ones.  The ones who wouldn’t be sucked in.  The ones who stood back and said, look, don’t uncritically buy into the values of your society.  Question.  Reflect.  Think.  Are these values truly those of a good life?  Socrates was the archetype.  Sadly, too many philosophers have decided to set old Socrates aside, embracing the productivity principle with varying degrees of fervor.  And to make matters worse, a lot of these people have highly visible positions, which makes them, even more unfortunately, the face of the profession.

I was naive to have believed that philosophy would be different—that philosophers would be more vigorously critical (even about their own professional activities) than those in other disciplines—but I never fully gave up on the hope over the years.  Today I am close to despair on this front–hence the motivational crisis.  I don’t want to be part of the productivity system.  I don’t want to be identified with academics or philosophers who suffer from the syndrome....

I left Penn State for Juilliard....You don’t get a more competitive crowd than Juilliard students and faculty, and yet there are significant differences from traditional academia.  There is an intense investment in quality, but few ways to translate this quality into numbers.  It’s not how many Haydn quartets you have played.  Rather, it’s how well you are playing this one.  I am not saying that there isn’t careerism.  But that careerism isn’t tied to quantifiable productivity in the same way it is in academia.  


Where were the philosophers who should have been saying that philosophy doesn’t play the productivity game?!?  The unexamined life is not worth living.  And living as a vehicle for production—as an instrument of production instead of as an instrument of action, of life—must be resisted, must be fought.  And fought in the name of philosophy.


None of this speaks to the deeply personal and tradition-bound reasons we have for wanting to write philosophy.  But we must find a way to separate the activity of expressing ourselves from the commodification and commercialization of that expression, which is at the heart of the productivity syndrome.

Here is another suggestion: stop writing philosophy for publication for an extended period of time.  Announce this decision to colleagues.  Be willing to say that this is for your good and for the good of philosophy.  Acknowledge that you need time to reflect on what the productivity preoccupation is doing to philosophy and to you as a philosopher.--Mitchell Aboulafia "The Productivity Syndrome (or why I stopped writing philosophy)"

Aboulafia's piece resonated with quite a few friends and was circulated widely on social media. While the piece touches on many issues along the way that I ignore in what follows, in it he offers at least six competing visions of philosophy. Let me list these first:

  1. The Socratic one, which involves "thoughtful and sustained reflection on matters public and private" and is willing to be critical of ruling values..  
  2. Philosophy as self-expression (in the context of a tradition). 
  3. The sophistic one, that focuses on productivity and is incentivized by measures of these.
  4. The artistic model focused on quality of performance.
  5. The dilettante who writes blog posts and other occasion pieces.*
  6. The teaching of philosophy.

It is a bit unfortunate  that Aboulafia runs the question of professional philosophy and the question of philosophy together. Perhaps because I spent a good part of my professional-scholarly life writing about men and women who were never employed in universities or by the Church [Descartes, Hume [who tried to get a position], Hobbes, De Grouchy, Margaret Cavendish, Toland, Mandeville, Spinoza [who declines an offer], Du Chatalet, Leibniz, J.S. Mill, Wollstonecraft, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc.], I think it's important to keep track of the difference.

So, first, today it is unlikely that Socrates, who disliked writing for publication, would get tenure on his public philosophy. (The turn to emphasis on productivity is actually fairly recent, I am just old enough to remember tenured folk with very short publication records in many department.)  But there are additional reasons to doubt he would be tenurable; Socrates would be a bad colleague: he would show up late for meetings, be uncollegial, and would take an unhealthy interest in the sexual lives of some of our students. In addition, his relentless willingness to scrutinize and deviate from the norms of society would make him a liability to any university. Socrates's execution is a warning that his is a high risk approach to philosophy for society and the person pursuing it.** I call this the Socratic Problem for philosophy. Nobody has solved it.

To move on: the artistic model is an attractive one because quality is grounded in technique and elite, daily scrutiny by teachers and peers. As Coetzee is fond of noting (see "What is a Classic" and my response here), these can sustain interest in relatively neglected artists, works, and approaches. We can understand literary criticism, Coetzee argues, as a contribution to a culture focused on quality.  But the political economy and infrastructure that sustains such elite art, including Julliard, is ultimately rooted in performance to a wider public or rich donors. And so, in part, in uninformed opinion (which, when applied to philosophy, opens the door to the Socratic Problem). While the artistic model can be applied, in part, to philosophy [and is to be discerned in the ways that philosophers are increasingly becoming ornaments to and the in-house futurologists or ethicists of billionaire-software-entrepreneurs], philosophy faculty and graduates are not public performers in the relevant analogous sense.  That is, and to be a bit deflationary, the artistic model is rooted in institutions focused on professional education (and they rise and fall with the market for these professionals). I don't deny the artistic model is worth having. I admire Robert Pirsig and, more recently, Mathew Crawford, who have both pursued it in their writings (both by pointing to it and living it). Adrian Piper is finally getting the recognition for her version of it. 

Third, philosophy as self-expression within tradition has important merits. It taps into a human need, and connects and extends the past (tradition) into the future. But there are two not quite related problems: (i) few selves are really all that interesting--and, when interesting (note Socrates above), they tend to be a poor fit for department life; (ii) it's hard to see this being a promising strategy for survival in publicly funded institutions, where both financial scarcity and the need for public justification are non-trivial. 

Fourth, the dilettante is by definition unprofessional. I hope it is clear I am no enemy of the dilettante (I hope i am not delusional in saying that I have a track record in which I exhibit and show a certain fondness for blogs and occasion pieces). But by definition the dilettante is not at home in a profession. It's not to deny that all the fruits of a dilettante can be turned into sophistry (I could share my blog numbers and citations, after all), but that would be self-defeating given the aims of Aboulafia. 

So, that leaves teaching and sophistry which is (ahh), despite many national and institutional differences (which can make a huge local difference), the status quo for the profession. Aboulafia and I agree that teaching of philosophy is noble and justifiable, and that the sophistic model is corrosive of philosophy in various way (although it need not be corrosive to society [recall])--most of my blogging history is an attempt to document this corrosion so won't repeat today. Even so, it is a bit unfortunate that (i) Aboulafia ignores that many of us (sophists in our research) keep teaching Socrates, Plato and the other critics of Sophism (then and since) to our students (few other professions can say that!); and (ii) Aboulafia ignores some other noble and self-vindicating alternatives that can be housed in universities:

7. Together with Roger de Langhe, I have offered an ameliorative (and very broad tent) strategy (here) for those of us fated to be professionals in a sophistic system: philosophy as exploratory research. (Go read it, and tell me what you think!)

8. Philosophy as service (recall Dotson).

9. Synthetic philosophy (recall this post)

How to do 7-9 without being corrupted by the pervasive sophism is for another day.

Here I want to close with a critical thought on Aboulafia's conflation of careerism and productivity. For in his disillusionment, he loses sight of the fact that there is nothing wrong as such with people publishing lots of philosophy in scholarly journals (unless one buys into Socrates's privileging of the spoken world over the written one).+ Yes, there are some technical problems (shortage of referees, journal capture, echo-chambers, etc.), and some publications generate inductive risk to society. But intrinsically publishing philosophy is a pleasing activity that keeps all kinds of conversations going -- that just is (recall) the mark of civilization -- and is a public record of our individual and collective efforts. In addition, it is a discovery procedure of what one thinks over time (so, oddly, it contributes indirectly to (2) philosophy as self-expression in a tradition [recall!]) and, if not pay-walled, it is a public good, that is a means to discovery by others (recall).

In fact, I sense in Aboulafia a suspicion of quantity as such. That is, there is not just a veneer of careerism that hangs over quantity, but, in his hands, also superficiality, a lack of profundity and depth. Aboulafia's rhetoric is one that used to be espoused by gentlemen-amateurs in hierarchical societies annoyed at the upstarts (professional, rootless, meritocratic, etc.) who upend existing hierarchy (and the old-boy networks they sustain). But this rhetoric rests on a mistake. (Aboulafia recognizes it is a mistake -- "the system makes it too easy to substitute quantity for quality" --, but can't resist himself.) Most of the best philosophers (we know of today in our traditions) were manifestly addicted to writing their thoughts (in notebooks, letters, etc.). This is no surprise: philosophy is, in part, a written craft, which requires enormous amount of exercise even for those that have scaled -- sorry for the elitism, but I am addressing an elitist argument -- the peaks of our history. This need to practice and exercise the skill is also true for the professional journeymen/women, who publish in journals. Of course, not all of these exercises are worth publishing (that's why we have editors and referees, etc.).

Some of us are so good at writing professional philosophy that taking an occasional break from such writing can do no harm and may even advance philosophy in the broader sense.  But professional writing, publication, requires exercise, and the best form of such exercise for many is ultimately regular, attempted publication.++ 



*Aboulafia expresses most fondness for 1, 2, and 4 (and sometimes seems to run them together).  In a footnote he adds the significance of 6. Teaching seems a bit of an afterthought.

**Others with a Penn State connection [Aboulafia writes movingly about his time there), Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (recall), have also used the example of Socrates to criticize contemporary philosophy. (I also criticize them more at length   in this paper here.) 

+There are days of the week in which I am willing to defend the spoken word; but we can't all be so lucky as Socrates to have fantastic interlocutors. 

++This is also true for playing Haydn quartets; there is a big difference between rehearsing for and playing in Carnegie hall. But the latter requires a practice of public concerts, too. And few artists resist the lure of a big audience.  

On Games and Society: On Iain Banks' The Player of Games, reflexivity and transformative experience.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/06/2018 - 1:11am in


art, Games

Gurgen never ceased to be fascinated by the way a society's games revealed so much about its ethos, it's philosophy, its very soul.--Iain M. Banks (1988) The Player of Games, p. 30. 

The Player of Games is a clever science fiction novel, but here I want to treat it as a contribution to Socratic Political Theory (recall here and here). The action starts in an imperial, utopian somewhat anarchic (there are few laws) society with little scarcity (nor money) and not much death full of semi-clever drones that serve and keep humans alive. This intergalactic human society is surrounded by an, in part, hidden machine-culture in which super smart machines and networks reveal consciousness and intelligence that outstrip anything we are capable of. Jointly these two societies inhabit the Culture, which is extremely powerful in the galaxy. It's ruling ideology (it's called a 'philosophy' by themselves) is 'Strength in depth; redundancy; over-design" (239) This is an ideology of precautionary principles. In this volume of the series, we never learn what keeps the machines from killing of the humans they outsmart. Perhaps the humans are thought the useful redundancy of the Culture.

The Culture is committed to a Whorfian thesis about language, and its language has been designed to facilitate the flourishing of the Culture. The Culture itself is governed by the ruling machines in the manner of Government House utilitarians. The humans kind of know this, but they can never be quite sure what the machines are up to. This turns out to be an important, structural element in the novel. The Culture also seems a bit resistant to creative innovation. 

Prior to the start of the narrative of the novel, the Culture encounters another technologically skillful civilization, the Empire of Azad. This is a militant and hierarchical meritocracy.  This society has not solved the problem of scarcity, and so it is based on property (or "ownership" 114) means it both needs conquest abroad and material inequality has severe consequences for the quality of life of those at the bottom of the hierarchies. (It has abolished formal slavery -- something they are said to be proud of, but there is wage-slavery.) Part of the fun of the novel is that the Empire of Azad seems a lot more familiar than the Culture to us readers, but that the representatives of the Culture finds it disorienting and (despite all the glitter and color) inferior.

The meritocracy of Azad has two important characteristics. A game, conveniently also called 'Azad,' (which means 'machine, or perhaps system' [76]) is the main selection mechanism of status within the hierarchy. The game (Azad) reflects (like a "model" (76)) the social reality of Azad, "whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance." (76) But because the game, Azad, is such an important social institution, it also structures social reality: "such is the pervasive nature of the idea of the game within the society that just by believing that, they make it so," (77; emphasis in original.) It is to Banks's credit that he does not merely characterize such reflexivity, but also shows the ways such reflexivity can be both extremely robust (the game Azad and the Empire so structured have co-evolved for a long time) and quite fragile--if the idea can be undermined in the right way the whole society can collapse rapidly. Interestingly enough, from the point of view of political philosophy, is the observation that in  such a (partially heriditary meritocracy), the opinion of the people is still vital to the survival of the hierarchy--propaganda precisely consists in giving the people what they want to hear.  

The second characteristic I just mention, but deserves fuller discussion. The Empire of Azad has three sexes: males (with testes and penis), and two kinds of females:  one with a reversible vagina and ovaries and one just with a womb (74). This sexual division of labor facilitates a social hierarchy with the first kind of women on top and the other on the bottom. The novel was first published in 1988, and one can see that Banks has thought through some of the potential implications of surrogacy and genetic engineering.   

The novel is structured around a subtle distinction between a mere game player and a game player that is a 'true gambler.' (21) The former, presumably, enjoys play and the thrill of winning, and does not concern us here. However, the latter "needs the excitement of potential loss,even ruin, to feel wholly alive." It is not obvious one needs to be a true gambler in order to be a great or greatest game player. In fact, the novel is most interesting on this very point. The main protagonist (Gurgeh), who is the best game player of the culture and also among its leading game-theorists, discovers in the narrative that he is such a true gambler.* There is a revealing seemingly unconnected detail that illuminates this point. Gurgeh's sexual and personal identity is remarkably un-fluid given the society he inhabits. (Sex changes and sexual preferences are very fluid.)  He is one of the very few in his society who has not never changed sex, or (being a man) has slept with a man (24). That is, it's clear his identity is tied up with both extreme loss aversion and treating loss as existential. But in the right circumstances the true gambler is willing to risk all. 

As an aside, the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be one of the super-smart drones who are part of of the machine network that runs the Culture, explains at one point that in the ruling ideology, dubbed 'dynamic (mis)behaviorism' (a species of consequentialism, by the way)  that identity is less important than humans think: "We are what we do, not what we think. Only the interactions count." (231) The logical problems such a view encounters are not confronted. 

But it turns out the fluidity of identity in another sense also accompanies the true gambler (who is both risk averse and eager for existential games). For, as it happens to be a true gambler, and to know it about oneself, involves playing games that one knows may change who one is--a so-called transformative experience: "he would change; he would be a different person at the end of it; he could help but change, take on something of the game itself; that would be inevitable." (82) That is, if a true gambler plays a game in which one can suffer great, existential loss  (and I am leaving that un-defined in this post) then by definition she can know in advance of the game that she can come out transformed without knowing the content of the transformation. The point of playing the game is not to be transformed, it's feeling the thrill of being alive in the right sort of way; but the transformation is a known  by-product if and only if one survives. (Of course, this is compatible with the existence of all kinds of other transformative experiences.) The game of Azad can also generate transformative experiences for those players who don't expect it.

Let me wrap up, Gurgen has been trained up, we may, on playing many different kind of games throughout his life. Even so, in his game playing he represents the Culture. As it turns out, however, this is be sufficient to beat the very best folk in Azad at their own game. He is more adaptable than they are and this somehow represents a feature of the Culture. However, it turns out, as he gradually becomes aware, that he himself was a pawn -- even a pawn that could be sacrificed -- by the  machine-network that runs the Culture. It is worth reflecting on this momentarily.

In the Culture, something we learn early, the study of game theory and the study of philosophy are sharply distinguished (p.15)  This is significant, as I hope to suggest in (closing in) what follows. Gurgen is very good at the former. We only get hints of the game theory, but among the humans of The Culture it seems to be a mixture between the craft involved in the study of positions in the matter of say Chess and Go, and the more formal kind of apparatus we find in say our (Earth) game theory used in economics or political science. 

Again, Gurgen is notable for being good at playing games and theorizing about it. He also recognizes that games and society are intimately linked. But strikingly his contributions to game theory is all about games one can play and not the society in which they are embedded and (can) model.* This lacuna in his theory, perhaps even a consequence of the way the discipline of his culture is structured [recall the Whorfianism], is especially striking in virtue of the fact that his very own game theory involves a metaphysics in which "reality is game" because "physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance." (41) 

So, one of the indirect points of the book is that only the insertion of what I have been calling Socratic Political Theory, a meta-theory in which the games and structures of societies are analyzed in comparative fashion [More and Le Guin (recall) are astoundingly good at this], completes the proper union of philosophy and game theory. (That's an ideal game theory.) We learn that Gurgen is fascinated by the subject matter (see the quote above), but that he lacks skill in it. Absent such political science one is, for example, slow to recognize, as Gurgen is, that one can be a pawn in a game played by hidden powers behind the scenes, that is, the invisible ruling powers of the Culture.



*En passant we learn in the novel that in addition to games, (i) genre stories (fairy tales, horror, etc.) and (ii) conventions of punishment also reveal much about their socities. 

#1403; The Sincerest Form of Fakery

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/06/2018 - 3:00pm in

''Amazing! Where do you get your ideas?'' ''I guess Rotterdam?''

Le Guin (and William James) on Sacrifice; on Political Aesthetics and Truthful Ideology

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 31/05/2018 - 9:41pm in

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.--Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

The narrator of this "fable" -- Le Guin hesitates calling it that  -- at times situates her (his?) own description in the history of utopian thought: she contrasts the citizens of Omelas with the "bland utopians" (of More). Le Guin, who takes categorization  of her fiction rather seriously (in the playful way in which the serious is properly addressed) may be right to insist it is not a utopia because the narrator also admits not knowing "the rules and laws of their society." But it is possible that we learn more than the narrator realizes (as is often the case in the best utopian writings). Rules and laws are intrinsic to utopian reflection, when considered as a species of (what I call) Socratic political theory [recall here and here]. One might easily be confused about  this point because the narrator describes Omelas as "happy" (without being "stupid" or "naive and happy children") in a way that is often associated with utopian thought.

In order to show that they are genuinely happy, the narrator claims that the Omelasians (the Omelians?) are (i) capable of distinguishing and discriminating among "what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive."  And (ii) they have  chosen to live beyond necessity and allow technology that is "neither necessary nor destructive," but simultaneously to reject the (potentially) destructive kind. That is to say, Omelas is a society with metaphysics (or philosophy) and capable of taking, what we would call, inductive risk seriously. (In some respects -- especially the fact that there is a religion without priests -- it is like the true city of Plato's Republic.) Some other time I hope to reflect a bit more carefully on the logic of modality in which necessity and destructiveness are contraries.* (One would also like to know more about how they apply their knowledge.)

Above, I have quoted the central element of the story, or a necessary ingredient, that is supposed to make the 'joy' and the 'city' believable.** This reveals that a criterion for a happy city is some trade-off or some discordant element.  This element is a sacrifice.+ The happiness of the city is founded in a contract (James calls it a "bargain") which has three clear terms: (a) a miserable child; (b) no talking to the child; (c) "the happiness" of the citizens of Omelas.  Before one complains that this contract is obviously invalid say on the Hobbesian ground that the child is thrown back into the state of nature (really worse--she is deprived her use of reason), it is worth noting that from the perspective of the contracting parties the child is a mere externality. This is true of all contracts in which beyond the contracting parties and the arbiter/sovereign who enforces it, there are always parties who are effected by the contract, but not included (as contracting parties or in its language). The contract would be invalid if the sacrificed child were itself one of the contracting parties. But as Hobbes reminds us (recall), in the state of nature mothers have supreme dominion over their children and can dispose them at will (on my interpretation this justifies right to abortion in his view). This right need not be given up in the bargain. So this is a legitimate contract.

It is tempting to discuss here the question if it is a moral contract. If the child were spoken to -- and so readmitted to community, and so made part of the contract -- its objections and pleas would have to be taken into account. But today I am going to resist the casuistry (although I am quietly relying on your eagerness to do it yourself), and the familiar debates between consequentialists and deontological perspectives, we would have to enter into.[1] For prior to the question of morality, there are two, all too easily ignored, issues that are explicitly raised in the fable. One is a question (with a nod to Hannah Arendt [recall my valedictorian pieces at NewAPPS, here and here]) connected to politics of aesthetics: "the treason of artists," which is a "refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain." One of the narrator's points on this issue is that modern artists self-limit in such a a way such that a skill has been lost (or at least 'almost lost')++ that is, the skill to represent joy and happiness without, simultaneously, thereby turning it in a moral tale or a political message. As such artists are incapable of conveying the full richness of human life. (This is something Coetzee also worries about.) The narrative situation of the fable is made complex because our narrator ends up performing what she decries. Part of the issue then is to what degree there is space for non-acceptable and non-believable art. That is to say, by bringing in the question of acceptance and belief, the narrator obliquely reminds us that her art is not isolated, but itself part of a larger political community; our expectations and standards are implicated in her representation.

I emphasize the obliqueness of this issue because, second, the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible.  For, everybody in Omelas (above a certain age) knows of the child sacrifice performed there. (Perhaps, this is even a fourth publicity requirement in the contract!) There is no noble lie here. And it is this knowledge that grounds a lot of the best features of the activities that bring (let's stipulate) true glory to Omelas ("nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.") That is, this is a society in which its best activities do not require -- something familiar to us -- the effacement of the ugly foundations of flourishing. This is, indeed, a "responsible happiness." (How this connects to "barbarism" -- the narrator introduces the contrast -- is actually a tricky matter, but we can't do everything at once.)

Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By 'ideology' I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo -- in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) -- and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom." What they say is (let's stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child. 

Now, the story shows that two alternatives in play are (i) continue to agree to terms of the social contract, or (ii) quietly leave town (that's the closing "incredible" paragraph of the story) and end one's complicity with known misery from which one benefits.  One may grant that releasing a child after such degradation may cause as much wretchedness as staying in confinement because she would be released into a collapsing society. But it is notable that they do not seriously contemplate ending the practice when this child dies. That is, in virtue of accurately describing the world they inhabit, they do not prepare for an alternative, communal future path, beyond Omelas.***  





 *Yes, in such a logic there would be, perhaps, an equivocation between necessity as 'the thing needed for bare survival' and necessity as 'the thing that is always the case' (or law-governed, etc.) 

**There is an interesting switching back and forth between believing and accepting something. 

+I have seen the child described as a scapegoat, but that strikes me as a mistake (as I suggest in the post).

++This suggests there may be some rare artists left capable of conveying the fullness of life.

***Omelas is explicitly not on an isolated island.

[1] It is notable that William James (who uses 'casuistry' in slightly different way than I do here) thinks the matter is simple: "Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?" In James's scenario the sacrifice is out of sight, and so presumably out of mind most of the time. In such a case, it would be easier to develop an ideology that justifies continuation of the status quo. James has a strange faith in the un-corruptibility of human feeling when offered a bargain in which others are sacrificed for one's own gain. Le Guin strikes me as the better psychologist on this point. [James's own purposes for this scenario in "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" are also interesting, but that's for another day.]

Refuting Anti-Semitism Smears with the Reasonableness Test: Part Two

The claims that some of the comments made by critics of Israel are anti-Semitic because of their imagery and language used also reminds me very strongly of the claims made by some of the paranoid conspiracy theorists themselves. For example, Israel has constructed a wall around itself designed to keep the Palestinians out. This is very controversial, and the great British caricaturist, Gerald Scarfe, drew a cartoon of the Israelis building it using the blood of the Palestinians as mortar. The picture was published either in the Independent, or the I. The Israeli ambassador, an odious creep called Mark Regev, immediately declared that the cartoon was anti-Semitic. The inclusion of blood in the picture was a reference to the Blood Libel, the murderous lie that Jews kill Christians and use their blood in the matzo bread at Passover.

In fact, the cartoon contained no reference to this vile libel. There were no references to either the Passover, matzo bread or ritual murder. It was purely about the wall, and the Israelis’ butchery of the Palestinians. But the accusation had the intended effect. The I or Independent caved in and made an apology. But blood and its imagery is a very common image used to portray the brutality of oppressive, violent regimes and groups of all types around the world. It is certainly not confined to Jews. Regev was, of course, making the accusation of anti-Semitism to close down a graphic portrayal of the Israeli state’s brutality, as the Israel lobby has been doing to its critics since the 1980s. But his accusation bears less relation to objective fact than to some of the really paranoid theories that have circulated around America about secret cabals of Satanists plotting to destroy American society from within.

One of these, which surfaced c. 1982, concerned Proctor and Gamble and their logo, as shown below.

As you can see, this shows a ‘Man in the Moon’ surrounded by thirteen stars. According to the rumour, which was boosted through its inclusion by several Southern fundamentalist Christian preachers in their sermons, the imagery reveals that the company is run by Satanists. The thirteen stars represent the thirteen members of a witches’ coven, and the ‘Man in the Moon’ is really Satan himself. Especially as the curls of the figures hair is supposed to show the number 666, the number of the Beast, the Antichrist, in the Book of Revelations. See the illustration below, where I’ve circled where I think these ‘Satanic’ curls are.

Now if you applied the rule adopted by the lawyers for the Israel lobby to the imagery here, you could argue that it is fair to accuse Proctor and Gamble of Satanism, because that’s how its logo and its imagery has struck thousands of Americans. But you be ill-advised to do so, because the company vehemently denies any Satanic connections. It’s actually a patriotic symbol, with the thirteen stars representing the thirteen founding colonies of the USA. The company has also redesigned the logo to iron out those curls, so that they no longer appear to show 666, and engaged the services of other right-wing fundamentalist preachers, like Jerry Falwell, to show that the company is not run by Satanists. They also have a very aggressive legal policy, so that if you do claim that they’re a bunch of Satanists, they will sue. And I very much doubt that the court will be impressed by claims that the company must be Satanic, ’cause somebody can think that looking at their logo.

This is real, Alex Jones, tin-foil hat stuff. And stupid rumours of Satanic conspiracies have real consequences for ordinary people, just like the smears of anti-Semitism have been used to damage the lives and reputations of decent people. We have seen people falsely accused of child sacrifices and abuse, based on no more than fake recovered memories, in scenes that could have come out of the Salem witch hunt back in the 17th century. Some of them have even gone to prison. This is why it is absolutely important that people are always considered innocent until proven guilty, and that accusations of Satanic ritual abuse, and anti-Semitism, should always be held to objective, not subjective standards. The rule that such accusations must be believed, because somebody may think that a person is a Satanist or racist, simply on the way a comment subjectively strikes them, only leads to terrible injustice.

The Israel lobby here are showing the same paranoid psychology that permeates the racist, anti-Semitic extreme right. The type of people, who search the newspapers and other texts looking for proofs that the Illuminati really do run the world. Or that the Zionist Occupation Government really has taken over America and the West, and is attempting to destroy the White race through racial intermixing. Or that Communists have burrowed into the American government.

One of the proofs of this last conspiracy theory was the tiny lettering on the Roosevelt dime. Just below FDR’s neck and extremely small, were the letters ‘JS’. According to the rumour, the letters stood for ‘Joe Stalin’. This rumour first appeared in the Cold War, in 1948, when the scare about ‘Reds under the bed’ was just beginning. But it’s completely false. Oh, the letters are there, but they don’t stand for Stalin. They’re the initials of the coin’s designer, John Sinnock. You can claim all you want that the claim is subjectively true, because liberalism and the welfare state = Communism, or some such similar right-wing bilge. But it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law.

And some Christian fundamentalists in America have also seen in the colours used by state roads signs evidence of a conspiracy to put them in concentration camps. Back in the 1990s there was a rumour panic going around about the colours used in spots adorning the highway signs in Pennsylvania. These were supposed to show the location of the concentration camps, in which true Christians would be incarcerated when the Communists or one world Satanic conspiracy came to power. In fact they showed no such thing. The state’s highway department used the dots as a colour code to mark the year the sign was first painted. This was to show how old the sign was, and so indicate when it should be repainted.

Continued in Part Three.

#1401; The Tactful Critic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/05/2018 - 3:00pm in


comic, art

Like my mother always said, if you can't say something nice about someone, then keep adding qualifiers.